The discipline of military service, as it does for many young men, changed John Blackjack’s life.
"He was a wild child with us," said Roseanne Wray, whose family adopted and raised Staff Sgt. Blackjack. "The Army did something wonderful for him. They turned him into a soldier."
Blackjack, who died May 31 of a respiratory illness, was a miniature mule. Since 1983, he had served as the mascot for a major supply unit, the 1st Theater Sustainment Command. An estimated 25,000 soldiers had contact with him while serving at Ft. Bragg since the Wrays donated him to the Army.
Actually, what they did was foist him off.
"We gave him to Fort Bragg and we were delighted that he was actually was taken into the Army," Wray recalled. "Because even the day we turned him in, the colonel said to my husband, 'Let’s rehearse Jack for the events that were to follow.' And I can distinctly remember my husband saying, 'Jack does not rehearse.'"
Blackjack's rank and role were ceremonial. He participated in hundreds of retirement, award and change-of-command ceremonies, and boosted moral at events for families. He was also there at the airstrip, alongside families, to greet the unit’s troops when they came home from war.
At a memorial service Wednesday, Maj. Gen Darrell Williams said Jack came to embody the unit.
"We’re pretty stubborn about making sure that we provide the support that our warfighters need," Williams said. "It’s a symbol of unit pride about being able to provide the logistics and sustainment support that our warfighters need, and I think that’s what he symbolizes for us.”
Staff Sgt. Blackjack was about 35 years old. Science isn’t clear on what that translates to in miniature livestock years, but they were surely rich ones. One poster on a memorial Facebook page, perhaps overcome with emotion, claimed Blackjack was the best non-commissioned officer the unit ever had.
This was not true. In fact, Jack once was busted down a rank.
"Jack had apparently disliked one of the previous commanders," said Roseanne Wray's husband, Robert, "and at a ceremony turned his back to the commander and pooped. And lost a stripe."
Blackjack is part of a long history of military mascots.
Units around the world have kept kangaroos, shipboard dogs, wildebeest, fish, pelicans, a penguin, and at least one baboon.
There also was the British Army goat that was busted down a rank after disrupting a ceremony marking Queen Elizabeth’s birthday. A witness said it repeatedly tried to head-butt the “nether regions of the drummers."
And there was the elephant that developed what can only be described as a large drinking problem while serving with - and being served by - a Scottish unit. He had to be transferred to a zoo for detox.
But Blackjack became a solid, reliable soldier.
"I can understand how a mule can be stubborn at times, especially when he’s young," said Blackjack's handler, Sgt. Darrell Glover. "But he’s been doing it several decades now, so he pretty much knew the routine, I never, ever had an issue with him."
During the memorial ceremony, unit officials announced that Staff Sgt. Blackjack has become the start of a tradition. A handler led out a young black mule, also donated by the Wrays.
PFC John “Huck” Blackjack is nicknamed for Robert Wray's brother, who died at the Battle of the Bulge.
He has some big hoofprints to fill. And, like another young mule 32 years ago, some growing up to do. Mourners at the memorial service were advised that PFC Blackjack is a Private still in training.
"Please keep your distance until he has been properly broken in," warned an announcement on the public address system.